I generally like Bill Maher, even if I don’t agree with everything he says. On his most recent show (actually his next-to-most-recent now; I started this post a few days ago), he brought up a few interesting points. One is something he’s been talking about for a while, related to comedy, political correctness, and college campuses. Now, I’m not big on the term “politically correct,” because it seems like people mean completely different things when they use it. Sometimes it’s a way to downplay common courtesy and insist that it should be acceptable to use ethnic slurs.
In this case, it’s more about trying to protect people from any potential offense, which can be incredibly patronizing at times. Comedy, by its nature, is sometimes going to be offensive. The way I look at it is that it should offend the powerful rather than the powerless. This isn’t always that simple, but I feel it’s a good guideline. It’s also really important to look at context. Are you going to throw out the people who make fun of racists with the actual racists? Some people dismissively say things like “they’re just jokes,” but I feel they’re diminishing the power of humor to do both good and bad. Jokes do not exist in a vacuum.
It also strikes me that the debate over such things is often between well-off white people. Maybe sometimes you should listen to the actual people you’re trying to defend. I mean, I think the term “people of color” is disturbingly close to the insulting “colored people,” and that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But if it’s what non-white people prefer to be called, who am I to argue? A lot of this depends on the individual; I’ve heard of Native Americans who prefer to be called Indians, but I don’t think they’re necessarily speaking for the entire population. Much of the time there isn’t going to be one term that will please everybody, but I think the important thing is that you try to be courteous. That, and while it’s a good thing to be empathetic, you’re never going to really know what it’s like to be part of a group when you’re not. White people need to fight against racism, and men need to battle sexism. But in the end, their opinions matter rather less than those who have actually experienced racism and sexism.
Listening to the members of a marginalized group can potentially backfire sometimes, because you get cases like Dr. Ben Carson claiming that racism isn’t a problem anymore. Now, I don’t like Carson; I think he and Dr. Oz are examples of how you can be intelligent in one respect and really stupid in others.
But really, do you really think he’d be willing to give his honest opinion on the subject in a room full of white men? You’ll also occasionally hear from women who don’t think it’s a problem that they earn less than men, or homosexuals who are against gay marriage. I think Fox News has most of them on speed dial. I think there’s clearly some brainwashing going on when poor people blame their problems on even poorer people. Many people support positions that are totally against their own interests. On the other hand, I don’t think talking down to them is going to change their minds.
Maher also brought up a list of terms derived by the University of New Hampshire that were supposed to avoid offense as much as possible. He was against it, and while I think the people who came up with it had their hearts in the right place, some of them kind of sounded worse to me. There was something about not saying “poverty-stricken,” and instead using something like “experiencing poverty.” I asked my wife why this would be, and she said it probably had to do with people not wanting to be seen as victims. That makes sense. On the other hand, I think many poor people really ARE victims of a society that treats them poorly, and “poverty-stricken” does a better job of reflecting this. I suppose it might come down to differentiating the individual from the societal condition. It’s not a good idea to go up to a person and identify them as poverty-stricken, or even just poor. But poverty is still a genuine problem we as a society need to examine more closely. Perhaps it comes down to the difference between what problems someone has and who they are. This also made me think about terms that were coined intentionally to make those in power uncomfortable, “rape culture” being the best example I can think of offhand. Feminists saying they want to bring down the patriarchy is similar, as are the various sorts of privilege. I’m for them overall, but I have to wonder if they ever turn away potential allies.